After California tribes cry foul, Assembly Member James Ramos kills a repatriation bill
Assembly Member James Ramos, D-Highland, Serrano/Cahuilla, a citizen of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the first California Indian to be elected to the state legislature, agreed to pull Assembly Bill 275 bill from consideration after several tribes expressed concerns.
Ramos says he filed the bill to ensure that all Indigenous California peoples have equal access and oversight over remains and funerary items in California university archives and museums, came under fire after California tribes said the bill would bar most of California’s non-recognized and terminated tribes from participating in repatriation committees to bring their ancestral remains and funerary items home for reburial.
Tribal rights organizations called for the bill to be amended to avoid the unintended consequence.
Ramos emailed Indian Country Today this statement on Aug. 6. “AB 275, while well-intentioned, has inadvertently brought to the surface important issues facing Indian Country. It is clear these issues warrant time and discussion. Therefore I will not be pursuing the bill. While acknowledging the horrid past of the state of California toward its California Tribes, the need for education and discussion on the past atrocities and genocide is needed in order to move forward.”
Organizations and tribal officials are applauding Ramos' decision.
The history leading up to a dismissed bill
For the California State University system’s 150-year existence, scholars have collected human remains, burial items and material culture from throughout the state. This has resulted in thousands of ancestral remains and cultural items in need of being brought home to their respective tribal lands. In fact, a report issued by the University of California, Berkeley notes that that college alone possesses some 9,200 human remains and more than 13,000 funerary objects.
Tribes have long been frustrated in their attempts to pry these remains and other culturally significant items out of university archives and the hands of scholars who view the items as valuable research resources; for example, that same study claimed that more than 70 percent of these items were not culturally identifiable, a figure that tribes dispute.
California has grappled with the issue for nearly 20 years. But, a bill that was making its way through the California State Legislature sought to give tribes more clout in repatriating ancestral remains and funerary items from state universities and museums would have had the unintended consequence of barring many Indigenous communities from participating in repatriation discussions.
Ramos said the focus was “to ensure that cultural traditional ecological knowledge bearers are given equal footing with museums” and to create liaisons.
Additionally, the legislation would have given “the Native American Heritage Commission authority to seek outside legal services when there is a conflict within the attorney general’s office.”
Conflicts would arise in California if, for example, a university or other state entity brings legal action to keep certain items requested for repatriation by a tribe, and since the state’s attorney general represents all state entities, Ramos’ bill would have resolved any possible conflicts.
The Golden State has the nation’s largest number of such unacknowledged tribes due to a more than 160-year history of failed treaties, genocide, tribes left out of the rancheria program because they hid their identities out of fear, and mid-20th-century federal tribal termination policies. Out of the Indigenous 165 tribes in California, 55 are either terminated or were never recognized.
Over the past decade, the state has been moving toward more engagement with all Indigenous peoples in California, including recognized, non-recognized and terminated tribes.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology last month to tribes for the state’s past atrocities and promised to initiate a “Truth and Healing Council” to address and clarify the record.
California’s repatriation efforts
In 2001, California enacted its own Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, known as CalNAGPRA, to supplement the 1990 federal law of the same name. It specified how repatriations will be handled within the state. It also set forth which tribes could use the legislation — federally recognized tribes and non-recognized tribes that have filed for federal recognition.
Effectively, the California law barred most non-recognized and terminated tribes from accessing remains or funerary objects because they didn’t meet the tribal designation requirement.
In 2011, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued an executive order requiring every state agency and department subject to communicate and consult with California Indian tribes, which included representatives of non-recognized tribes.
In 2014, Assembly Bill 52, the latest of two such bills, amended the state’s California Environmental Quality Act to include tribal cultural resource protection protocols when cultural items or remains are discovered.
In addition to the 2001 CalNAGPRA legislation, Brown signed a bill in October 2018 requiring universities to create statewide and university committees to formulate new policies to expedite repatriations.
All of these give federally recognized, non-recognized and terminated tribes certain rights to reclaim burials or material culture and to monitor projects to ensure that any items found will be dealt with respectfully and appropriately.
The Ramos bill would have expanded the 2018 CalNAGPRA legislation to include tribal representation on an equal basis with museum and university officials.
Ramos said his bill was intended to give tribes more clout to ensure those items are reclaimed by their rightful people by giving tribal cultural practitioners and leaders an equal voice in repatriation committees.
Ramos — a former chairman of the Native American Heritage Commission, the state agency charged with oversight in tribal cultural asset protection — told Indian Country Today he agrees that all California tribes should be able to bring their ancestors and their items home for reburial.
But aye, there is the federal rub
Considering all of the legislative efforts in the state of California meant to assist tribes in getting back ancestral remains and funerary items, language in the CalNAGPRA legislation was impeding rather than helping, and tribes voiced their concern at the state level.
Simply put, wording in the bill outlines the requirement that a tribe seeking to bring ancestral remains and funerary items home for reburial must either be a federally recognized tribe or a non-recognized Indigenous tribe “listed in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Branch of Acknowledgement and Research petitioner list pursuant to Section 82.1 of Title 25 of the Federal Code of Regulations,” and “determined by the [Native American Heritage Commission] to be a tribe that is eligible to participate in the repatriation process.”
Sacred Places Institute and Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples, along with some recognized tribes, feared that the wording of the bill would have reversed some 10 years of progress because the language in the CalNAGPRA legislation does not address the existence of non-recognized tribes and terminated tribes, not on the petition list.
Many tribes proclaim: “Oppose AB 275!”
Angela Mooney D’Arcy, Juaneño/Acjachemen, the executive director of the Sacred Places Institute, had been negotiating with Ramos’ office to amend the bill to remove CalNAGPRA’s “California Indian Tribe” definition.
D’Arcy issued a statement July 30 after Ramos said he would amend part of the bill but would not remove CalNAGPRA’s definition of a tribe: “I'm saddened and deeply troubled to report that the authors of AB 275 have declined to accept Sacred Places Institute's additional proposed amendments at this time.”
“Absent the proposed changes presented by the Sacred Places Institute, AB 275 could limit the duty of California colleges and universities located in places like Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco, and state agencies throughout California to consult with federally recognized tribes and only those non-federally recognized tribes on an as-yet-undetermined federal list of tribes actively petitioning for federal recognition,” said D’Arcy.
D'Arcy cited an example of how the legislation could have caused a problem for unrecognized tribes. If any ancestral artifacts originated from anywhere along 500 miles of the California coast from San Francisco to north San Diego County — whose lands include universities such as UC Berkeley, UCLA, and other such state institutions — about 20 unrecognized tribes would not have been able to serve on the repatriation panels, and would have had a much harder road to repatriate their items.
The older state repatriation law also has issues. D’Arcy pointed out, “The 2001 [CalNAGPRA] ordinance cites federal regulations that no longer exist … this language infringes on tribal sovereignty because it would force tribes to apply for recognition in order to make use of the repatriation legislation, even though some tribes have determined that it’s not in their best interest to pursue federal recognition.”
Additionally, terminated tribes that missed federal deadlines to petition for restoration — some of which are not eligible to apply for recognition except through Congress — would have had little recourse to repatriate items.
Tribal representatives speak out
Morning Star Gali, a citizen of the Pit River Tribe, representing Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples — a coalition of Native people dedicated to justice for tribes — cited similar objections. “Many people have thought about asking to have CalNAGPRA amended,” she said. “Perhaps [Ramos] should not be referencing that part of CalNAGPRA until it’s fixed.”
Although many recognized tribes delivered letters of support for the legislation, at least one recognized tribe felt differently.
Pit River Tribal Chairman Agnes Gonzalez, who agreed with D’Arcy and Gali’s assessment, sent a letter to the California State Senate, where the bill was in play after passage in the Assembly.
“Denying tribes the ability to participate in the repatriation of their ancestors is a denial of the tribes’ fundamental sovereignty,” Gonzalez wrote in the letter, citing the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “Rather than embracing Governor Newsom’s apology for the genocidal policies and actions against its California Native people and helping to address those devastating effects, AB 275’s exclusionary new definition of ‘California Indian Tribe’ is yet another genocidal action.
“Excluding those California tribes that have chosen not to pursue the flawed and unjust federal recognition process is simply another attempt to erase these tribes’ histories and deny their present existence.”
Ramos replied to those wanting change. In an emailed statement July 30, Ramos wrote, “Coming away from a very productive meeting with the opposition, I will be removing a section of the bill which contains the tribal definition. With any bill, it’s like pealing [sic] back an onion – when working to fix a problem, issues come up inadvertently. I look forward to working together as we move forward to address issues facing California Indians.”
Upon receiving word of the bill’s withdrawal, D’Arcy issued a statement. "Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples is relieved to learn that the rights of non-federally recognized tribes and previously terminated tribes in California will not be jeopardized by a bad, outdated definition of California Native American Tribe.
“We thank Assembly Member Ramos for taking our concerns to heart. We recognize the importance of honoring tribal traditional knowledge and look forward to working with Assembly Member Ramos in the future as his office works to center and uplift tribal traditional knowledge and support all California Native American Tribes in their efforts to protect Indigenous sacred lands, waters, and cultures."
Indigenous storyteller Debra Utacia Krol (@debkrol) is an award-winning journalist with an emphasis on Native issues, environmental and science issues, and travel who's fond of averring that "My beat is Indians." She is an enrolled member of the Xolon (also known as Jolon) Salinan Tribe from the Central California coastal ranges.
Krol's forceful and deeply reported stories about peoples, places and issues have won nearly a dozen awards. Krol was named the Best Beat Reporter of the Year for environmental issues by the Native American Journalists Association.